Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray remembers the late Arlen Specter as a one-of-a-kind politician.

"He certainly danced to the tune of his own drummer," Gray said of Specter, Pennsylvania's longest-serving U.S. senator, who died Sunday at age 82.

Specter was once a registered Democrat who became a Republican, only to switch back to the Democratic Party near the end of his career.

While some vilified Specter for his "individuality," Gray said he should be celebrated for it.

"The breed of politician like him who makes decisions based on what works, rather than what the party line is, is a dying one, and I don't think that's healthy," he said. "Arlen Specter certainly wasn't afraid to do that."

Local politicos remembered Specter Sunday with a mix of frustration and respect.

"He had an 'R' after his name, so a lot of people faithfully voted for him in Lancaster County, but he definitely had a hard time connecting with the conservatives here," said former state Rep. Katie True, a Republican who represented the county's 41st District.

True said she had a long-standing disagreement with Specter over proposals to legalize marijuana.

Specter was for it, True said.

She was - and still is - vehemently against it.

"We had some pretty intense arguments on that topic," True said. "But it never got nasty - that's not my style. And he was always a gentleman.

"I always appreciated that about him."

True also appreciated the time Specter called on her to testify at a 1997 hearing in Hershey on the importance of mammograms.

At the time, the National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference withheld a recommendation on whether women should begin mammograms at age 40 or age 50. The panel said the decision should be made individually by each woman and her doctor.

True believed it was imperative that women have a mammogram early and not wait until after age 50.

Specter was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

His position on the issue mirrored True's.

"I think there was some funding that was in jeopardy, and he called on me to testify about my position," True recalled Sunday. "Arlen was good on that issue."

Marvin Miller Jr. represented Lancaster's 96th District in the state House from 1972 to 1990, and he's been a longtime member of the Lancaster Airport Authority.

He said he didn't always agree with Specter's "liberal political views," but he knows Lancaster County benefited from having Specter in the U.S. Senate.

"He was really fond of central Pennsylvania, and he made sure federal funds came to this area," Miller said.

At the airport, Miller credited Specter for helping secure millions in Federal Aviation Administration funds that helped extend the airport's runway to 1,600 feet.

Also, Specter and Rep. Joe Pitts combined their efforts, Miller said, to change federal criteria in 2003 so the airport could regain hundreds of thousands of dollars in FAA Essential Air Service funding it had lost in 2002.

The federal funds were key to keeping passenger service viable at Lancaster Airport.

"He had a strong drive to do the right thing," Miller said. "It might not always have been the most popular way, but that didn't matter to him. If he thought it was right, that's what he was going to do."

In one of the last conversations between Miller and Specter, Miller said, Specter told him "one of his biggest regrets was not bringing a federal courthouse to Lancaster. That was something he really wanted for Lancaster for a long time."

For decades, Specter championed efforts to open a federal courthouse in the city, saying in 2009 that President Barack Obama had allocated $27 million for the project in his budget proposal for 2010.

Specter announced his switch to the Democratic Party a year earlier, but lost the 2010 Democratic primary and left office at the end of the year.

Within six months, federal officials announced no federal courthouse would be built here.

"That certainly was a subject that went round and round for a lot of years," Gray said.

True, Gray and Miller all said they admired Specter for his valiant fight against cancer - the disease that took his life.

Specter in 2008 wrote the book, "Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate," which chronicled his fight against a brain tumor and Hodgkin's disease.

"You'd definitely have to call him the comeback kid," True said.

preilly@lnpnews.com

What to Read Next